When Robin Williams died last week, apparently by his own hand, it shocked everyone.
Williams was an undisputed comic genius, known primarily for his uncanny ability to “free style” through comedy riffs that saw him morph seamlessly from one character to another and rattle off a stream-of-conscious monologue that was difficult for an audience to follow, let alone nearly impossible to imagine creating.
In retrospect, it is all too easy to understand now that such unparalleled creativity emerged only from the most tortured of souls.
When I interviewed Drew Hastings about Williams last week, I originally intended to play the story somewhat more inconspicuously than its final appearance. Williams had been a guest on the same “Tonight Show” as Hastings after Drew was elected mayor in November 2011, and I thought it might be of passing interest to get his take on the famous actor and comedian.
But Drew’s comments veered into the nature of celebrity and the media’s vested interest in propping up the celebrity culture, and I thought it was a unique point of view that offered a good lesson.
Readers agreed, and so far the story has been viewed in total by 7,000 or 8,000 readers online. (The first time we posted it, it received more than 4,000 views; it was briefly and unintentionally removed from the website, and the view count started over when it was re-posted.)
Many people dream of fame and fortune. I have always thought, especially in recent years, that if I could have one or the other, or both, I would definitely choose the fortune, but not the fame, although one is difficult to have without the other.
No doubt, being a television, movie or rock star would have its perks, and it would be fun sometimes to be mobbed by adoring fans every time you stepped out your front door. But that would grow old quickly. The trouble is, you can’t decide, “I’ll be famous for two hours a day and private the rest of the time.” It doesn’t work that way. Once you achieve fame, or infamy, you lose your privacy and often your dignity, permanently.
Add to that the challenges of trying to deal with personal problems that happen to everyone, rich, famous or not. Most people who suffer from depression can deal with it privately and quietly through treatment. But anyone as recognizable as Robin Williams has their every move catalogued, recorded and reported, usually in the most sensationalized manner.
Every time Robin Williams decided to seek treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, or for depression, he had to factor in the national and even worldwide attention such a move would bring, and the effect it would have on his family, especially his children. It could well be that last week, reportedly with early-stage Parkinson’s disease added to the mix, he decided that exiting this world was better than another ride on the tabloid roller coaster.
One of several emails I received regarding the article about Drew Hastings’ thoughts on Williams came from an official with a senior living complex in Otterbein, who wrote, “I was pleasantly surprised and somewhat moved at Hastings’ deference to calling Williams a ‘national treasure.’ Hastings’ words remind us that true worth and value come not from our stuff or perceived cultural prestige. For me, true value comes through peace with God and through His son; and through Him, peace with others.”
The anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death was once again commemorated by fans around the world over the weekend. As a fan who has read much about his life, there is no doubt in my mind that Elvis also suffered from clinical depression. But as a son of the south, he was raised in the he-man tradition, never admitting to any weaknesses.
Instead, like any self-respecting southern good old boy, he surrounded himself with hot women, hot cars, and lots of guns and ammunition. Increasingly as the years went by, he also dulled his inner demons with a variety of pharmaceuticals to escape the inner soul whispering loudly in his ear.
Elvis had been raised the poorest of the poor on the wrong side of the tracks in Tupelo, Miss., and he never completely escaped the psychological shame of those years. When he returned for a triumphant homecoming concert in 1957 and was hailed a hero, he noted privately that people were coming up to him and his parents to shake their hands when, just a few short years earlier, they wouldn’t give them the time of day.
Elvis was also raised in the hellfire and brimstone tradition of Pentecostal fundamentalism, and no doubt was often at conflict with the lifestyle of fame and wealth that his adulthood had come to embody. Until the end he maintained his spirituality and proudly sang in concert “How Great Thou Art” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” but he simultaneously took full advantage of the world’s comforts and temptations.
There is no guilt quite as powerful and lasting as fundamentalist guilt and its accent on the punishment that awaits the wayward, which is often emphasized over God’s grace. Am I supposed to live in peace, or in fear? Both, probably.
Robin Williams committed quick and intentional suicide, but the slower, less obvious self-destruction that Elvis (and Michael Jackson and others) committed could be defined as the same act.
“Do not seek the treasure!” the character Pete warned his colleagues in the funny film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The treasure in question was the loot from a holdup, but the truth was, there had been no holdup and there was no treasure. The quest for the nonexistent treasure was a trap, Pete was warning.
Such is the quest for fame and fortune and the happiness we are told they bring. Fame and fortune do not bring happiness, and the quest for them is a trap.
Gary Abernathy can be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @abernathygary.